Scammers are blackmailing UCLA students and convincing them to pay fake ransoms and fines, university police said.
Students are reporting more confidence scams, in which scammers coerce victims into paying them after earning their trust, said UCPD Detective Brian Washburn. He said the number of confidence scam reports has significantly increased over the past year.
Washburn said he did not have an official tally, but estimated that the number of reported confidence scams has jumped from about 12 in the previous academic year to around 30 in the current academic year.
Scammers often make up compelling stories to justify requesting some kind of quick payment and promise to repay victims, Washburn said. In one instance, a crying woman near campus asked a student to help her sick son. Her accomplice, playing the part of a sick boy, turned out to be a healthy 28-year-old man.
“Who doesn’t want to help a kid who needs medicine, right?” Washburn said. “But it’s all baloney.”
Washburn said he thinks scammers target students because they are young and inexperienced with money. He added most of these scams occur just off campus on Landfair and Le Conte avenues, but scammers can also target students over the phone and the internet.
He added scammers are also targeting students at other Los Angeles colleges, including the University of Southern California and California State University campuses in the Los Angeles area.
Washburn said scammers can also call students with blocked numbers, posing as IRS and FBI agents collecting overdue fees from students. Washburn said the IRS does not contact citizens over the phone and will usually issue a letter about late charges.
“The IRS will never call you on the phone. … The FBI will never call you, asking for money,” Washburn said. “Never wire money unless you know them.”
Scammers usually ask their victims to pay fake fines with gift cards or wire money because these methods are more difficult for police to trace, he said. UCPD has traced many of these funds to straw accounts, or fake bank accounts, in Lagos, Nigeria.
Washburn said scammers sometimes blackmail students into paying money by threatening to release video footage of them performing sexual acts.
These cases, filed officially as blackmail sextortion, are significantly less frequent than other forms of confidence scamming, Washburn said. He added there were only a handful of theses cases each year, but he thinks many students are not reporting these cases out of embarrassment.
Washburn said he has won scamming cases in the past by citing the right penal codes, but giving money to people is not technically a crime. He added it can still be easy for scammers to get away with taking victims’ money, so students should be more careful about who they give their money to.
“It’s much easier to make it tougher for students to be victims,” he said.
Washburn advised students to never pay anyone with prepaid gift cards or wire money unless they are sure of where it is going. He also cautioned students against filling out unfamiliar forms that ask for personal information and added they should contact UCPD at 310-825-1491 to report any suspicious activity.